Every year, an estimated 80% of the globally reported 1,500 acid attacks are directed at women. Rejected suitors and husbands are predominantly the perpetrators. However, there is no official source to corroborate this. “We can’t keep waiting for things to happen, for a law to be passed, for adequate compensation or punishment to be dispensed. So, we do what we can,” says Alok Dixit, former journalist and founder of Stop Acid Attacks, an organisation that is attempting to compile a database by reaching out to acid attack victims across the country, using international crowd-funding websites like indiegogo.com to fund surgeries.
“The first thing to do is to wash the acid affected area with water,” says Dr. Sunil Keswani, cosmetic surgeon and secretary of the National Burns Centre. “Keep pouring water for 20-30 minutes to wash off all the acid and reduce the time that the acid is in contact with the skin. Rush the person to the nearest doctor and then to the closest burn hospital. Skin should be grafted onto burn victims within a day or two to prevent infections. Regrettably, we don’t have adequate burn centres or skin collection centres in India and the municipal centres are not exactly well-equipped. We have two burn centres in Mumbai, but what about the rest of India?”
Shock, anger, self-pity and acceptance are the emotions that surface in the aftermath of an acid attack, according to Dr. Maya Kripalani, consulting psychologist and family therapist, at the Jaslok and Bhatia hospitals in Mumbai. “These feelings are normal and must be accepted, not denied. Avoid blame games. Families need to be supportive and let the victims grieve. Time and patience are crucial. People who learn to channelise their anger heal faster than those who get caught up in self pity.” By Law
“We had no separate law taking cognizance of acid attacks as a distinct crime until 2013, when amendments A & B were inserted in Section 326 of the Indian Penal Code,” says Dr. Subhas Chakraborty of the Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI), which has been campaigning for an Indian version of Bangladesh’s Acid Crime Prevention Act and Acid Control Act, 2002. This would require a license to manufacture, sell or purchase acid and also make it mandatory to maintain sales records.
“There are two aspects to the law with regard to acid attacks. One is punishment. The other is compensation,” explains advocate and women’s rights activist Flavia Agnes. “However, perpetrators are not always apprehended; while Karnataka and some other states have compensation schemes, Maharashtra still does not. ” State governments offer compensations ranging from Rs.2,00,000 to Rs.3,00,000, which are meagre compared to the “Rs.50,00,000 to Rs.75,00,000,” that Dr. Keswani informed us is the treatment expenditure incurred by an acid attack victim over a lifetime.
A survivor's tale
In the summer of 1999, Haseena Hussain was just another girl growing up in a middle-class home in urban India. She was a data-entry operator, doing a correspondence course in commerce but hoped to become a Bollywood fashion designer. All that changed in April 1999, when her former employer, whose proposal she rejected, splashed acid on her. “I felt helpless,” exclaims Haseena. “People don’t know what to do when they see you standing there screaming in pain. They are afraid to help in situations that might involve the police.”
What dragged her out of darkness and back to life? “Justice!,” she says, “I wanted justice. I kept telling my doctors to finish off the surgeries quickly, so that I could go to court.” The Human Rights Legal Network (HRLN) and Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CASAAW) supported her battle.
Has she received justice? Not quite. “The best that the Indian courts offer is a 14-15 year life sentence. Justice is life imprisonment until death,” she says. The Rs.2 lakh that she received from the government couldn’t even cover treatment costs. Even after her parents’ home and jewellery were sold off, funds raised by local media and NGOs were required to pay for the 35 surgeries she had between 1999 and 2009. What’s worse is her allegation that, “People use my name to raise funds which never come to me.”
Does the unfairness of it all consume her? “No. The past is the past,” she says. There’s a calm acceptance to her voice. No one would know she’s been to hell and back. There was a time when her fingers had melted together, she couldn’t move them and had to be fed. “Almighty Allah and my family helped me through the torture,” she confides.
Her neck still hurts from the stretching of all the grafted skin. She covers her face while travelling, to minimize the risk of infection. She’s had essential surgeries but not cosmetic ones, because, “It’s painful. I think 35 surgeries is more than enough. Besides, what’s the point? I can’t see my face.” Did the thought of committing suicide ever cross her mind? “No!” she insists. “Suicide would mean that I had failed. Why should I sit in a corner and cry? Why should I let anyone throw my world into darkness, for no fault of my own?”
It’s terrifying for a sighted person to step back into their lives unsighted. It wasn’t until 2009 that a course at Enable India opened up a world of possibilities for Haseena. She checks her email, surfs the net, and responds to smses with the help of programmes designed to help the visually impaired. She manages the house, cooks for herself, and has secured a government job on merit. Haseena has done the rounds of government offices to show people what she looks like, as she feels people don’t realise the damage that acid can do till they see you. “How can we get jobs in the private sector when people can barely look at us?” asks Haseena.
“I wanted to be independent. I wanted my parents to be happy that I could take care of myself. I travelled 50 km a day to study, even when people suggested I shouldn’t. But my whole life is a struggle,” says the spirited girl who derives much satisfaction from reaching out to the visually impaired. She hopes to do a course in counselling to help other victims.
Maybe she’s braver and wiser today, but she’s still the same girl who loves to keep track of trends. Only now, she has to ask her mum to describe the world outside.
SAA is a campaign against acid violence. We work as a bridge between survivors and the society, as most of the victims of this brutal crime, which is much more grave in its impact than a rape, have isolated themselves after losing their face. Due to ignorance of the government and civil society, most survivors find no hope and stay like an outcast, in solitude. SAA aims to research and track acid attack cases and compile a data to get the actual situation of survivors.
We work with partners and stakeholders towards elimination of acid and other forms of burn violence and protection of survivors' rights. The process of justice to an acid attack victim remains incomplete until she gets immediate medical, legal and economic help, along with the critical social acceptance. Our vision is to free India from this crime, which reflects the flaws of our patriarchal society and abusive attitudes. We want survivors to have access to fast justice and fight back the irreparable impact of this crime.
Any amount you can donate to us, no matter how small, will be very gratefully received and put to good use helping acid and burns violence survivors. Your help could help pay for dressings and medical supplies for recuperating patients. A small help could help survivors with vital physical rehabilitation after an attack, including physical therapy and nursing.